Is there anything sweeter in college hockey than ending a long road trip with a sweep over a major rival in an arena where success has been very hard to come by?
Nothing comes quickly to mind. So it's very understandable that the Bemidji State men's hockey team was basking in the satisfaction of completing such a sweep Friday, ripping Niagara 4-1 at Dwyer Arena. Coupled with a 3-1 victory Thursday, the Beavers left Niagara Falls for the first time since the 2004-05 season with a sweep of the arch rival Purple Eagles.
"It was an emotional weekend," said Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore. "The guys really earned this sweep; they played six great periods of hockey. We've had our brains beat out in this arena a lot - that makes these two wins even more gratifying."
It was an emotional weekend for the Beavers for two main reasons. First, this was the end of a grueling road trip that had the Beavers playing four games in seven days in pressure cooker conditions. Second, and mostly important, the Beavers lost sophomore forward Ryan Cramer because of a knee injury suffered in Thursday's win.
Cramer had been a key component of BSU's third line, which Serratore described as the team's best over the last five weeks. The severity of the injury and how long Cramer will be lost will not be known until he is examined in Bemidji early next week.
But the Beavers dug deep and played perhaps their best game of the season Friday, dominating all aspects of play. "The intensity and energy carried over to the next shift all night long," Serratore reported. "They had a couple good flurries, but when they did (BSU goalie Matt Dalton) stood tall. I can't believe the intensity and jam we had ... just unreal."
Serratore said earlier the Beavers were concentrating on thee main areas of play down the stretch - special teams, goaltending/defense and limiting mistakes. BSU passed all the tests Friday.
Beavers ended 2 for 4 on the power play and held Niagara to an 0 for 5 effort. In a battle of the premier goaltenders in College Hockey America, Dalton was the clear winner in making 29 saves - three which were big time. BSU also kept turnovers to a minimum and controlled the puck for long stretches.
"We won a lot more face offs tonight which in turn increased our puck possession time," Serratore reported. "We played very well defensively too - that was a key as well."
The Beavers got the only goal of the first period, connecting on a 5 on 3 power play opportunity with just under six minutes left.
Brandon Marino fought for control of the puck near the bottom of the far circle, and funneled a shot towards the net.
The puck deflected off Niagara goaltender Juliano Pagliero into the net for a 1-0 BSU lead.
For the second night in a row, the second period was the difference maker for the Beavers.
BSU scored two goals in a span of 33 seconds to put the home team in a hole from which it would never recover.
The Beavers started the period a man short for 1:57 because of a carry-over penalty. Dalton kept Niagara off the board during the penalty kill just 1:00 into the period. Dalton lost his stick but was able to make a sprawling glove save, robbing Niagara's Ted Cook from point blank range. Cook looked to have a wide open net, but Dalton flew across the crease and deflected the shot with his glove hand.
About seven minutes later BSU's Tyler Lehrke made it 2-0 when he got his second goal in as many nights. At the 8:46 mark, freshman Shea Walters took a shot from the high slot into a crowd in front of the net. The puck deflected out to Lehrke who rifled a wrist shot past Pagliero.
The Beavers struck again quickly. Ian Lowe made it 3-0 when he took a pass behind the net, circled around in front and rifled a shot to the back of the net at the 9:19 mark.
The two quick goals seemed to completely deflate the Purple Eagles.
The Beavers put the wraps on the game just 56 second into the third on another power play goal. Walters started off this scoring play as well, getting a pass from Brad Hunt and then cutting to the middle of the ice. A Niagara defender stepped up to cover Walters and he slipped the puck across to Tyler Scofield between the circles. Scofield ripped a one timer top shelf past Pagliero to give the Beavers a huge four goal lead.
The goal was a team leading 14th of the season for Scofield and also a single season career high for the senior forward. He now as 96 career points on 40 goals and 56 assists.
For all intents and purposes, the game was over. The Beavers concentrated on puck control and clock management down the stretch to ice the win. Niagara's Egor Mironov spoiled the shut out when he scored off a rebound at 16:31.
The win cemented the Beaver's hold on first place in the CHA. BSU improved to 11-4-1 (23 points), while Niagara fell to 8-5-1 (17 points). Niagara will make up its two games in hand by traveling to Robert Morris next weekend. They will conclude the regular season at home against Alabama-Huntsville.
Regardless of what Niagara does the rest of the way, the Beavers can clinch at least a tie for the league crown with one win in the regular season finale against Robert Morris at the John Glas Fieldhouse March 6-7. A sweep would guarantee the title outright, regardless of how Niagara finishes.
"It was one heck of a road trip for us," Serratore reported. "We ended up getting five of eight possible points. It was just a big time effort by our guys."
The Beavers return to action next weekend, hosting the U.S. National Under 18 team in a pair of exhibition games from The Glas.